Look at Life: Festivals

5th July 2019

Festival Fever: Bliss or Bedlam?

By Lisa Botwright

Festival season is in full swing – and people are divided equally between fascination and indifference. Some, like me, were glued to the extensive BBC coverage of Glastonbury, while others complained, ‘it’s on how many channels?’

Last weekend’s five-day show of contemporary performing arts, the largest greenfield festival in the world, attended by around 200,000 people, received huge media acclaim for a line-up that included The Killers and Kylie Minogue – and naturally it also received a huge amount of ribbing.

‘People who’ve spent a lot of money going to the camp with tunes that is Glastonbury are now feeling very silly after finding out they could have just watched it all on TV,’ commented spoof news and satirical online blog Newsthump, adding ‘Are you seriously telling me I could be sitting in my armchair, a lovely cold beer from the fridge in my hand, effortlessly flicking between stages without having to walk miles in the glare of the afternoon sun only to miss half the act?’.

For various (frustrating) reasons, I’ve never quite made it to Glastonbury, but I do love a festival. My husband and I got together at a 90s seaside soul weekender, danced together in fields during the early rave scene, left the kids with the grandparents for an annual three days of mud, music and mayhem in the noughties, and latterly brought the teens with us to family-friendly music events.

I’ve been at a festival where the rain was running down my jeans into my wellies so heavily that my feet were in three inches of pooling water, and at another where hurricane-level high winds called a halt to the proceedings halfway through. Once I lost my trainer in the crowd, and, bending down to get it, was swept up in a torrent of dancing bodies – I was seriously terrified I was going to get crushed. On another day I had my foot stamped on so hard by an oblivious fan during a band’s encore that my big toe turned black and stayed that way for six months.

Most of the time is spent queueing. It’s a long day… so you queue for drinks, for food (you’re not allowed to take your own inside the enclosure) and for the eye-wateringly vile toilets (which get worse, as you can imagine, as the weekend progresses). It all takes so long that by the time you’ve bought a drink, and used the conveniences, it’s time to start the process all over again.

Then there’s tent trauma. You find a lovely spot to camp, with plenty of space around you, and off you go for the day. By the time you get back, the site you left is utterly unrecognisable. So many tents are crammed into one spot, that you have to navigate sleeping bodies and trip over tent pegs just to navigate a route back to your temporary home. As for rest, forget it. The noise from ‘other people’ is deafening, and someone will be tripping over you too at 4am.

So why on earth do we do it? Why do people put up with this level of discomfort? And pay an extortionate amount for the privilege? (You could easily go for a long weekend at a sunny Mediterranean destination for the same price.) Why don’t we all stay at home in our armchairs like Newsthump suggests?

It’s like this… When a band plays a song I love, it’s the single most incredible feeling in the world. Time is transcended, as are mundane, everyday feelings like aching legs, wet feet or mild dehydration. I’m caught in that moment, utterly transfixed by what’s happening on the stage, as endorphins flood my system.

And the crowd. I’m not one for crowds in any other aspect of my life. Seriously, I’m an introvert – I don’t like packed holiday destinations or being squashed in a room at a party. After working for years in busy open plan spaces, my single-person, quiet office here at Optima HQ is such a relief: a calm and happy refuge. But festival crowds are another matter.

While I’m having my electrifying endorphin-fuelled moment, twenty thousand people around me are having theirs too. We’re sharing a moment of celebration that’s unifying in such a powerful way, it’s almost spiritual. That vast amount of people singing along in unison to our favourite anthems, is an unforgettable moment of pure exhilaration.

But I’ve also experienced the same excitement in smaller crowds too, such as when ten or twenty people gathered to listen to an impromptu acoustic set. It’s all about the beauty of the music, combined with the oneness of the crowd.

I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with the festival musical experience. But the tents? This year, my husband and I took ourselves off to the Isle of Wight Festival and sailed through the weekend in the most middle-aged way possible by booking into a nice hotel on the coast, and taking the bus every day into the action. And when Friday night headliner Noel Gallagher sang his sublime set, my euphoria was topped only by the thought of a comfy bed and a hot shower when I got back. Now that’s bliss.

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